Optimism and opportunities at Green Cities

A sustainable future will be built on big data, artificial intelligence and evidence-based optimism, the industry’s green thinkers heard at the 11th annual Green Cities conference in Sydney.

This year’s conference theme, Fast Forward to the Future, was set with the knowledge that the future is notoriously difficult to predict. But that is exactly what we must do, the industry’s leaders said, when we build places that will be standing in 50 or even 100 years’ time.

Futurist Chris Riddell set the scene with a snapshot of artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, augmented reality and a world built on zeroes and ones.

“The next three years of innovation will shape and define the next 100 years”, Riddell told the audience.

The problems of tomorrow will provide information solutions, and data is the “new oil” he said. “We need to find it, mine it and refine it,” Riddell explained.

Digital disruptor Catherine Caruana-McManus agreed. Speaking in the ‘Road-mapping for real-time’ session, she argued that the Internet of Things would transform our lives. “We are moving from a world full of data to a data-driven world,” she said.

But machine learning is not without its challenges. Speaking later in the day, EY’s Uschi Schreiber rattled off a range of staggering statistics – from the OECD's prediction that one in nine jobs would disappear over the next two decades to CEDA's warning that up to five million jobs would be lost in Australia by 2030.

“If machines do all the work, what will we do? And what does that mean for the built environment?” she asked. “We need mighty stakeholder networks to shape a world that uses the power of technology for good.”

“Technology moves fast. Communities and social mores move slow,” warned Rod Fehring, chief executive officer of Frasers Property Australia – which is perhaps why communities struggle with the need to build denser, technology-rich cities.

“Rather than seeing density as a second choice, we should be looking at density as the vehicle that will make Sydney better as it grows,” said Michael Rose, Chairman of The Committee for Sydney, during one of the stand-out sessions, ‘Density done well’.

Pointing to data which reveals Sydney’s denser suburbs also have the highest price tags, Rose argued that “we shouldn’t assume because some people don’t want density that there isn’t a demand. There is – and some people are willing to pay for it.”

Penny Sharpe (pictured), the NSW Shadow Minister for Environment and Heritage, doorknocks in her inner-city electorate, and she says it isn’t density that upsets people – it’s the “planning failures” that have left schools bursting at the seams and people waiting five hours to see a doctor.

It’s time to “reframe the debate” about density the audience heard. “What if low density was a health problem?” Rose asked, adding that the rates of obesity and heart disease increase the further people live from the city centre.

Mark Steinert, Stockland’s CEO and managing director, and national president of the Property Council, concurred with Rose. He argued that just five per cent of the denizens of super-dense Tokyo were obese, compared with 27 per cent of Sydneysiders.

“We all have a responsibility to change the narrative and build trust if we believe in density done well,” Steinert said.

The audience was also urged to communicate the “co-benefits” of climate action – whether that was investment in sustainable social housing, better human health or a more entrepreneurial culture.

Scott Langford, CEO of St George Community Housing said investment in sustainable social housing was a catalyst for a range of positive environmental, social and economic outcomes, while Lord Mayor of Adelaide Martin Haese said the environmental benefits of a carbon neutral city were “self-evident.” Less obvious were the economic opportunities, entrepreneurship and ability to attract investment capital, he said – and that was how to sell the sustainability message.

Another co-benefit was health and wellbeing, said Rick Fedrizzi, Chairman and CEO of International WELL Building Institute. “Wellness is the next big opportunity for building performance,” he stated.

Future Crunch – a duo of political economist Dr Angus Hervey and big data scientist Tané Hunter – said it was easy to feel pessimistic about the future of the world when we are assaulted with images of shrinking polar ice caps and bleached coral reefs. But they urged the audience to focus on “evidence-based optimism”.

And the scientific evidence is clear. The number of people living in extreme poverty had fallen to an all-time low. So has the rate of child mortality. We are closer to world peace today than at any point in human history. Solar power is now the cheapest form of energy in 58 low income countries, 9.5 million people are employed by clean energy industries and China has just recorded another bumper year for clean energy investment.

“Our best hope lies in an intelligent and courageous optimism. Science, technology and human ingenuity give us the tools to make the world a better place,” Hervey said.

Tim Costello, World Vision’s chief advocate, said the “story of Green Cities” was about overcoming the “profound disconnect” in our current political processes and replacing this failing leadership with one driven by compassion and kindness.

And that leaves our solution-based industry well-placed to shape a better future.

As Lendlease chief executive officer Steve McCann said: “Few sectors have such an impact on the experience of our cities” – how they look, how they operate, and how they create liveable, sustainable places for people.